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Australian GP 2019: how could something so interesting be so dull?

Bryan Edwards

For fans of the personalities, regulations and technology of F1, the first race of the 2019 season was fascinating.

For fans of racing, it was extraordinarily dull.

There were two things that made the last few laps especially interesting: the rapid pace of Charles Leclerc, clearly much quicker than his team-mate Vettel saw him repeatedly close up, then drop back. Yes, folks, even at the first race of the season, Ferrari have already made it clear: Vettel gets priority, even when he's a lame duck. The second thing is a very welcome rule change: one that the teams said they didn't like but if that was true, someone forgot to tell the drivers. The most fun most of the drivers had all afternoon, was when they were vying for the fastest lap because, this year, FTD (fastest time of the day) gains an extra point and, as we all know, points make championships. More importantly, perhaps, points also, except at Ferrari, make priorities with drivers who are leading each team's championship efforts getting preferential treatment as the season wears on.

As for the race, Hamilton who had pole position had lost the race by the first corner. Although he would later complain about the strategy for pit-stops and tyre changes, the fact is that he was a second behind by the end of the first lap and that he was already almost three quarters of a second ahead of Ferrari's Vettel. The onboard shots show that there was nothing wrong with Hamilton's get away when the lights went out after a very short period of five reds: it was just that Bottas, almost anticipating the lights, got away with the kind of start that confounds all attempts at description - and then, even though Hamilton wasn't distracted by cars behind him after the first couple of corners, Hamilton just couldn't keep pace.

Local hero Ricciardo, whose fans had turned Melbourne yellow in their enthusiasm for Renault colours, destroyed his own race in a bizarre mishap. As he pulled away, the mid-field bunched up, Sainz moved to his right, Ricciardo (as he later said) didn't know how far over Sainz was coming and made a split second decision to run two wheels onto the grass to make space. That's normal, everyday, driving for a racing grid. So how come, for the first time since the track opened in 1953, and in the previous 20 odd years of F1, a car doing that fell into a drain or ditch? The impact ripped off the front wing, leaving the Renault to jump over it as it broke away and Ricciardo to, somehow, brake for the first corner without any front-end downforce. Incredibly, he did, kept it tight into the turn and avoided another accident. Although a new wing was fitted, he was already a lap down and there were other problems, too. He retired, much to the sadness of the Aussie fans and the Renault team.

Carlos Sainz had his own problems later; a fire in the engine bay was so intense that the paint was blistering on the engine cover. Although he stopped in a safe position right next to the pit-lane entrance, there was a surprising delay in marshals arriving with extinguishers. Car to pit radio was potentially funny: as the on-board camera showed heavy smoke and trackside shots showed flames, Sainz calmly told his crew "There's no power." His crew missed the opportunity for entertainment: they could have said "yes, Carlos, we know. It's because you're on fire" but instead elected for the prosaic "stop the car." He did and even then, while we watched the very unfunny site of an F1 car in flames, he seemed to be in no hurry whatsoever to get out of the car. There's cucumber cool and there's Sainz.

Meanwhile, Lando Norris, who had taken the other McLaren to an unexpected P8 on the grid slid back. Hard on himself, he said he had made a couple of mistakes that had cost a place in the points. Yes, well.. let's be clear - he was the best of those in their maiden season in F1, at 12th, he did not disgrace himself even though he was a lap down. After all, the Ferraris were nowhere to be seen when Bottas crossed the line and only the top six were on the same lap. For all three first timers to complete a full race distance and keep out of trouble is impressive. They should all be very proud. So, too, should Robert Kubica: Sky TV commentators kept saying that his was his first race in 9 years, since a crash in a rally caused serious injury. It's difficult to believe that he's not raced anything in that time. He's driven, for sure, but how does anyone expect to go from no current racing experience to F1 overnight. That's a stat that someone needs to investigate. The question is how did he perform? The answer is - not brilliantly. The star of Canada's Champion''s Corner demonstrated that he has not lost his affinity for walls. He finished but, even allowing for the fact he drives a Williams, his performance was underwhelming. He is both mentally and physically fit but after a nine-year break is he really a top-flight racer? It's a heads - hearts - budget problem at Williams. Everyone up and down the pit lane wants him to do well: it's an astonishing story and everyone wants a happy ending. But F1 is a heartless place: maybe, this year, when the car has all the potential of a cow, it won't seem so bad and perhaps he's being used as an on-track development driver (which was absolutely not the intention because Williams didn't expect to have another dismal car this year), but, sadly, this is almost certainly where his career ends. It's a nice try but it's no cigar.

Meanwhile, the newly rejuvenated Bottas said he's been sorting out his head. Let's see if that lasts when he's got to fight for position. The Melbourne race was a genuine masterclass. A stunning achievement that was worthy of.. dare we say it.. Hamilton. And, as Hamilton racks up record after record, Bottas has written himself into the record books, too. He's F1's first winner of the bonus point for fastest lap.

And so, for the first time ever, at the end of the first race of the season, the winner starts the Championship with 26 points, six clear of his nearest rival. Last year, that single point was what separated him from fourth place.

And it was that point that caused the most fun of the afternoon. While the entire race had turned into a DRS-driven train of cars running nose to tail but unable to overtake (the nose to tail bit shows a huge improvement in the aero-disturbance, though) at the end, the new rule that says that FTD gains a point, provided the holder is in the top ten, meant that fast-lap specialists all wanted that point. Engineers, wary that each engine has to last for seven races and that's the first, tried to calm things down. There was absolutely no chance of that happening. Bottas was an entire pit stop ahead of Hamilton but elected not to risk something going wrong at a tyre change : there's no sense in losing 25 points in the pursuit of one. So he just hared off and set another fastest lap every time Verstappen put one in. Leclerc, bunged up behind Vettel was a full pitstop ahead of Magnussen and clearly had a fast car. Ferrari didn't bring him in, either. Was that because, if they did, and that one point would have halved his deficit to Vettel in the Championship? Or even because it would have made the team orders even more of a mockery of fair play? Team orders have their place but the first race of the season when the team points would not have been affected is not it.

And so to Bahrain in two weeks, after the cars have been shipped home, had a nuts and bolts breakdown and checked out.

We'll see if the DRS changes have the desired effect: clearly the changes to the wings has made an improvement. On an open track designed with overtaking in mind, maybe the extra 25% DRS "boost" will have a significant effect. We'll see.

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